I come from a long line of green thumbs on both sides of my family. When I had children of my own, I wanted to pass my gardening heritage on to them, but we've never had a yard suitable for a garden. Then my kids and I tried vegetable gardening in containers, and I discovered that we cultivated more than plants on our patio. Gardening taught my kids patience, responsibility and something that surprised me - how to eat more vegetables.

"Gardening is a great way to get children to feel ownership for the foods they eat," says Melissa Halas-Liang, a registered dietician and founder of SuperKids Nutrition Inc., an online nutrition resource for parents and healthcare professionals. "If kids feel ownership, they are more likely to help cook the food and eat it."

Whether you live in a high rise apartment or a house with a limited amount of green space, your family can reap the benefits of gardening together. Follow these simple steps to start a thriving container garden.

Collect containers early.

Gather containers that are at least 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep, or for vining plants, 20 inches wide. Reuse any five gallon buckets you have, and peruse thrift shops or flea markets with your children in search of gardening pots. Steer clear of black containers because they absorb sunlight which can cause soil to dry out and requires endless watering. Also, if the container doesn't have any way to drain, be sure to drill one-quarter inch holes in the bottom. This way water will keep the plant moist, but not make the roots so wet they rot. When selecting a container, Halas-Liang suggests letting children paint the pot. She says, "Involve them in the growing process from start to finish."

Choose your vegetables.

After you have plenty of containers, choose vegetables to grow. Some great ones for container gardening are tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, green beans, green onions, herbs and potatoes. Keep in mind that vining plants like cucumbers or tomatoes may need a trellis. Start small the first year, and then add as you grow more knowledgeable and confident. Halas-Liang advises choosing plants that will grow quickly, "Children like to see results. Pick a vegetable that doesn't take a long time to reach its harvest."

She recommends lettuce, squash or zucchini (yes, they can be grown in pots - check for varieties suitable for containers). Another kid-friendly plant for container gardening is the herb basil, which also has a high nutritional value. "Basil has a ton of antioxidants, and a couple of tablespoons of basil is the equivalent of a small serving of vegetables," says Halas-Liang.

Seed or Seedling?

Next, decide if you want to start your own plants from seed. If so, this may be another step you start early, depending on the growing season where you live. When collecting containers for indoor windowsill seeds think outside the Styrofoam cup and save empty milk cartons, eco-friendly cardboard egg cartons and paper cups. You can even put a seed in a Ziploc bag with a damp paper towel, tape it to the window glass and it watch it sprout.

Select your soil.

Once the threat of freezing temperatures has passed, you are ready to plant outside in containers. Be sure to use a soil specifically for container gardening.

Now you are ready to plant!

Those seedlings that you have worked so hard to grow (or debated so hotly over at the garden center) are ready to put into containers. Place them where they will get six hours of direct sunlight. You'll need to water them, but not so much that they drown. Do a daily test by sticking your finger about an inch into the soil. If it feels dry, the plant needs more water.

Keep a diligent watch

. Watch for any problems such as disease or soil issues. Work together as a family to share the responsibility of watering and checking the plants. Children are usually eager to help and enjoy the cycle of growing produce. If you encounter any plant problems, ask a neighbor who gardens or consult your local agriculture extension agent. Gardeners usually love to share their craft, and you and your children will grow a sense of community in addition to your new gardening skills.

Reap the rewards of the harvest.

Let your children help pick the fruits (in this case vegetables) of their labor. With a little planning and some creative containers, your family can harvest cultivation skills, time together and healthy food - without even leaving the patio!


Growing Green: Pick an Eco-friendly Pot

When choosing containers for a patio garden, there are many clever ideas that incorporate recycling. Some creative choices include anything from shoes and wagons to old sinks and tubs. While it is a good idea to repurpose when we plant, some containers may have toxins or chemicals that can leach out into the soil and the food you grow. To be on the safe side, follow these tips for picking the perfect pot.

  • Know the container's history. If possible find out what materials the container was made from and its former use. If you are uncertain, it is better to look for a different container.

  • If the container is old or painted, be certain that it does not contain asbestos or lead paint.
  • Rethink using a set of wheels when planting vegetables. Tire rubber can leach chemicals into the soil.
  • Avoid plastic containers with a three, six or seven in the recycling triangle on the bottom. These can also release toxins.
  • When using natural wood planters, try untreated wood. Some good choices that hold up for years are cedar, redwood, cypress and pine.
  • Don't forget fabric. Old fabric shoe organizers, bags and even fabric pots make good containers.
  • Don't rule out self-watering containers. These are a good choice for burgeoning gardeners and green thumbs alike.

Great Books for Green Thumbs

Sow the seeds of reading and gardening with one of these great books for gardeners of all ages.

Preschool:

  • "Growing Vegetable Soup" by Lois Ehlert
    This picture book teaches young children the process of growing vegetables from seed to harvest. It ends with a delicious recipe for vegetable soup.
  • "How Groundhog's Garden Grew" by Lynne Cherry
    When Little Groundhog eats lettuce from his neighbor's garden, his friend Squirrel teaches him to grow his own produce through the seasons.
  • "Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden" by George Levenson and Shmuel Thaler
    With verse and vivid photographs, this book details the life cycle of a pumpkin.

Elementary Age:

  • "The Curious Garden" by Peter Brown
    In the middle of a city of concrete and steel, a boy named Liam tends to some plants and realizes a lush garden can thrive in an unlikely place.
  • "Linnea's Windowsill Garden" by Cristina Bjork and Lena Anderson
    Using creative containers, Linnea inspires and informs readers about how to grow an indoor garden.
  • "Compost Stew" by Mary McKenna Siddals
    From A to Z, this is a good resource for teaching children and their parents how to make their own compost pile and give the planet a helping hand.

Tweens, Teens, and Adults:

  • "All New Square Foot Gardening, Second Edition: The Revolutionary Way to Grow More in Less Space" by Mel Bartholomew
    Written by the host of the former PBS series "Square Foot Gardening," this book is a how-to on gardening in square-foot blocks of space rather than traditional rows.
  • "The Vegetable Gardener's Container Bible: How to Grow a Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers" by Edward C. Smith
    This book teaches even novice gardeners how to grow organic food in small spaces. The book covers container and tool selection, caring for plants and controlling pests without chemicals.

Great Resources for Getting Started

Feeling overwhelmed? Here are some gardening organizations and websites that can help:

  • The National Gardening Association: garden.org
    This website includes an ask-and-share section and has a plant finder, weed library and wide variety of gardening articles.
  • kidsgardening.org
    A resource sponsored by The National Gardening Association that provides resources for parents and educators who want to garden with kids or start a school garden.
  • American Horticultural Society: ahs.org
    The American Horticultural Society is a non-profit and one of the oldest member-based gardening organizations in North America. The website includes educational information for gardening with kids and hosts a seed exchange for members each year.
  • United States Department of Agriculture: usda.gov
    This website shares educational information about organic farming, insect control, nutrition and gardening with kids.
  • United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map: planthardiness.ars.usda.gov
    This map is the standard by which gardeners can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location.
  • Garden Watchdog: davesgarden.com/products/gwd/
    A free directory of nearly 8,000 gardening companies. Gardeners can share opinions on which companies deliver on quality, price and services.

Janeen Lewis is a freelance writer and green thumb in training. She loves to grow plants from seed to harvest with her two children, Andrew and Gracie.